In 2011, analysts predicted the rise of Augmented Reality mobile apps. The nascent technology would revolutionize the way we interact with our mobile devices. Flash forward two years and dozens of AR apps populate all mobiles stores, but does that mean the technology finally evolved into software worth using?
This article examines four such apps. Like most augmented reality apps, these examples have relatively steep system requirements. They also cover a diverse range of software, including AR marker reading apps and navigation/tourism apps.
For the unaware, Augmented Reality overlays visual markers onto a cell phone screen, using the phone’s camera to input images. For example, navigation apps display on-screen what the phone’s camera sees and then overlays additional information (ergo the augmentation) onto the video displayed on the phone’s screen.
In the screenshot below, you can see the points or places of interest represented by red spheres. The closer the sphere, the greater its size:
Because of the diverse kinds of AR software, I evaluate the apps on the following general criteria:
- How useful is the app?
- How effective is the app?
- How efficient is the app, or how much data usage was incurred?
- Does it live up to the hype?
I’ve narrowed down my list of augmented reality apps to my favorite four, ranked in order of excellence:
Like other sight-seeing and navigation oriented AR apps, Wikitude focuses on locating places of interest. It also provides several alternative views, including an overhead map. Also, it can filter overlaid information by category—for example, I can choose to filter results by Tweets. Since many Tweets possess geotagged EXIF data, it shows up on display within a few meters of where the actual tweet occurred.
Usefulness: Wikitude’s primary asset is its usefulness at guiding users to interesting or relevant locations. For anyone who likes exploring the city, or even their own backyard, Wikitude provides powerfully useful information. It aggregates data from a very large number of online sources, including address books, geotagged Twitter data and Wikipedia. In short, it fields a huge amount of information.
Effectiveness: Wikitude’s most effective feature is guiding users to interesting or relevant locations. It functions best when used as a discovery app – for example, if you walk around a major metropolitan area and use “Around Me” under “Favorites” you will be inundated with points of interest. Choosing the “Categories” feature allows filtering of these points, which helps in finding precise locations, if you already have an idea of where you’re headed.
Data Usage: The free version of Wikitude sucked up about 5 megabytes in 5 minutes of use, making it the biggest waster of bandwidth by a factor of five. Part of this extends from the ads, which consumed the majority of the data transmitted. However, the fact that it used 5-6 times more data than the Yelp app should give most users pause.
Hype: Wikitude definitely lives up to the hype as a next-generation mobile technology.
Usefulness: iOnRoad is a driving app which turns your phone into a dash cam combined with a collision detection system. Its most useful feature of this augmented reality app is that it warns the driver whether his following distance falls behind a reaction time of at least one second.
Effectiveness: Out of the many features that iOnRoad offers, its most effective is its collision detector. On the other hand, its speedometer above 55 mph became increasingly erratic and inaccurate – consistently showing about 5 mph faster speeds than my car’s instrumentation indicated. This would not bother me so much if it weren’t for the constant alarm that was going off as I drove under the speed limit.
Data Usage: iOnRoad doesn’t use ads so it used the least amount of data out of all the AR apps provided at 288 kilobytes during a 15 minute drive.
Hype: iOnRoad lives up to the hype of being a next generation app. The fact that the paid version can replace a dash cam makes it worth the purchase price. What puts it over the top is its highly polished design and ease of use. On the downside, iOnRoad will require your e-mail address and will send you metrics on your travels. I like the metrics but don’t like that it requires your contact information.
Usefulness: Layar provides two functions: First, it scans Layar-compatible AR codes, providing users with additional content. Second, it provides overlay functionality in the same fashion as Wikitude. However, Layar includes an even greater amount of information than Wikitude. Its information-sources include police reports, Twitter and a great deal more.
It was an eye-opening experience finding that a peeping-Tom got caught right outside of my residence. The two shootings were completely mind-blowing. Perhaps Dave was right about AR’s potential for disaster?
On the downside, I found that Layar AR codes are very difficult to find. The only magazine with the correct Layar-compatible code was Playboy, which pretty much precludes me from writing in detail about this feature. However, I confess that Layar’s technology currently leads its competitors in this field, for the February issue at least.
Below is a screen capture of Layar’s demonstration video. If you use the Layar app on the image below, it will (most of the time) show you an animated video overlay demo. It’s pretty amazing.
Effectiveness: Layar really excels at providing point-of-interest locations. It offered a very similar selection of locations as Wikitude, however, it also included a lot of other publicly available statistics, which put it over the top.
Data Usage: After five minutes of usage as a point-of-interest navigation app, Layar consumed 395 kbs of data, making it the most efficient out of all the point-of-interest apps.
Hype: Layar most certainly lives up to the hype. It has not only the feel of an app from the future but also the function.
Usefulness: The king of all the AR software, the Yelp app provides the widest variety of features, ranging from point-of-interest overlay, to a deal locator. The kicker of the app is its integration with the Yelp review site, so not only do you get crucial location information, you also get reviews and contact information.
Effectiveness: The Yelp augmented reality app specializes a bit more thoroughly in just one kind of information: location of businesses, it does so with such effectiveness that I can’t help but heap praise upon it.
Data Usage: My data usage came in under a megabyte, so the app does use quite a bit of data—however, the app is definitely worth it.
Hype: The Yelp app has quickly become one of my favorite apps, period, on the Android platform. I highly suggest installing and using this app, even if you’re a shut-in.
Augmented Reality apps used for navigation possess ridiculous potential for further innovation. Its widespread availability on both Android and iOS assure that it will eventually see mainstream adoption. However, as evidenced by the polished Yelp and Layar apps, the technology is ready for mainstream use now. On the other hand, for marketing purposes, the current state of AR fails to properly utilize the technology.
The biggest failing of AR technology is the fragmented way in which developers sought to create a QR code successor. Unlike QR codes, the AR world’s fragmentation staggers the mind: Almost every individual app works only with images compatible with the specific app, so the Layar app only works with Layar AR codes.
Additionally, the technology itself remains unknown to the vast majority of mobile users. I attempted to use my phone to scan AR codes at three locations, but couldn’t find any—only the clerk at a comic book store knew of the technology’s existence.
Image Credit: Wilderness via MorgueFile.com